Big Love (no, not the HBO series about a Mormon and his wives) has played a huge role in the brief history of Project SEE Theatre.
The company's three directors first came together in 2009 to stage a workshop production of Charles L. Mee's play for Kentucky Conservatory Theatre. That collaboration led to the decision to form a theater company.
Now, Big Love is the sole freestanding production on Project SEE's spring season. (The troupe also is performing Peter Boyer's Ellis Island: The Dream of America with the Lexington Philharmonic on May 10.)
"We felt like we owed it to ourselves and to a lot of people to do a full production," says actress and company co-director Ellie Clark, explaining that the 2009 production of Big Love was an abridged version of the show, which left a very different impression of what the play was about. "Our hearts had not left it."
Sullivan Canaday White became attached to Big Love years earlier, when she was director of the apprentice program at Actors Theatre of Louisville and the play had its world premiere at the Humana Festival of New American Plays in 2000.
It was a quirky play, even by Actors Theatre standards. It played out on a blue, foam rubber stage, which allowed the actors to hurl themselves to the floor in anguish without injury, although there were plenty of bruises. There also was knife throwing onstage, and the bizarre plot of 50 sisters who were betrothed to their 50 cousins before their births in late 20th-century Europe.
"I remember walking into the theater saying, 'Oh, that's the kind of theater I want to do,'" White recalls. "I had a couple apprentices in it, which was very exciting for me, and they transformed the V.J. (Victor Jory Theatre). It was so unexpected, and I loved that.
"I never thought I could work on it because I thought I saw the production of it, and I didn't want to repeat that. I still adore that production."
Time and new collaborators helped open White to new possibilities for Big Love.
"You come to the point where you can look at it in a new way, maybe," White says.
She says the fact the 2009 show was a workshop probably helped because "it didn't feel like I was trying to re-create that original production."
She also got to see the show with a new cast.
Clark says she was reluctant to revisit the show because of a deep affection for that workshop cast.
"We were pretty nervous to open our hearts to a new cast," she says. "We have four of the original members," she notes, including herself and Project SEE's third co-director, Evan Bergman. "So, to open our hearts to auditions, and to have the auditions and to find them was so exciting and invigorating, we were like, 'Oh, my gosh, it's going to happen.'"
Big Love cast and production members go on quite a journey together. The play is based on the ancient Greek drama The Suppliant Women by Aeschylus. The show, with a decidedly modern twist, explores issues of love, justice and responsibility as the women and men wrestle with how to handle their predicament when the women refuse to be married.
"It leaves you with so much to question: right versus wrong, love versus hate, passion versus stubbornness," Clark says. "He really takes the quality of Greek tragedy and makes it modern."
The play poses strong questions: What are the roles in relationships? How long can love endure? Does love trump justice?
Before the 2000 production, actress Carolyn Baeumler hypothesized that if The Suppliant Women had been more influential than Euripides' Orestes, "Western culture would have been based more on love than justice."
Clark and others in the cast are hoping the issues will bring out a visceral response in the audience.
"I think there are audiences kind of craving that, and they're ready," says Patti Heying, who plays the matriarch of the home where the women seek refuge. "We're so conditioned to sit, and we can laugh — that's allowed. But we haven't had audiences that will talk back to the actors. So we will see."
That could make for an interesting Valentine's Day date.
Project SEE has made it a possibly deceptive Valentine's weekend offering: What could make for a better date night than something called Big Love on Valentine's Day?
"It was a dastardly plan," White says of the timing. "Maybe a little cruel. There is a lot of hope in the play, and maybe people can see that."
IF YOU GO
What: Project SEE Theatre's production of Charles L. Mee's play.
When: 7:30 p.m. Feb. 14-17, 21-23; 2 p.m. Feb. 24
Where: Black Box Theatre, Downtown Arts Center, 141 E. Main St.
Tickets: $20 adults, $16 ages 65 and older, $12 student with valid ID; available at Downtown Arts Center box office, by calling (859) 225-0370 or at Lexarts.tix.com.
Learn more: Projectseetheatre.com
Rich Copley: (859) 231-3217. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @copiousnotes.